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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908/09) [63:21]
arranged by Reinbert De Leeuw (2010)
Lucile Richardot (mezzo)
Yves Saelens (tenor)
Het Collectief/Reinbert De Leeuw
rec. January 2020 Muziekgebouw Amsterdam. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as lossless (wav) 16/44.1 press preview.
ALPHA 633 [63:21]

Another month, another Das Lied von der Erde. Hardly had Tony Duggan’s popular analysis of Mahler recordings been updated with Ralph Moore’s survey of this song symphony than a new recording appeared from Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics CCSSA40020 – review). Now another recording appears from Alpha and yet another from Pentatone - review. I've heard that only once so far, so I can't comment.

To sum up the state of affairs after listening to the Fischer, a splendid performance in every respect but one, very well recorded, my preference remains with Janet Baker and Bernard Haitink (Philips Eloquence 4681822) or Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich with Otto Klemperer (Warner 2564607598 or box set). The big BUT about the new Iván Fischer, as with Baker and Haitink, is that the tenor soloist lets the side down somewhat. I prefer Janet Baker with Haitink to her live recording with Rafael Kubelík on Audite (AUDITE95491), but she is much better partnered by Waldemar Kmentt on that recording.

I said that this was another recording of Das Lied von der Erde, but there is a difference. Alpha are not giving us exactly what it says on the cover, any more than they are with another of their recent recordings where ‘Lully Armide (1778)’ turns out to be an adaptation of the opera in a different style almost a century after the original.

This is not Mahler as we know him, though it is akin to the chamber versions of his symphonies by Schoenberg and others, in this case as arranged by Reinbert de Leeuw, who conducts it. The change is not as extreme as the BIS recording where the poems are translated back into Mandarin (BIS-SACD-1547 – review) – an implausible project because Bethge’s texts are adaptations of English translations, further adapted by Mahler, not direct from the originals. Mahler himself sanctioned reductions of his symphonies and he composed a piano accompaniment for Das Lied von der Erde (Warner Apex – review) but this adaptation often sounds markedly different from the work we know and love.

Some may think the changes for the better – de Leeuw apparently did – but my initial reaction was one of annoyance at this tinkering with the original. It's different from modern completions of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, the best of which sound idiomatic – the composer hadn’t quite fixed the details – with the latest version of Deryck Cooke’s realisation (Cooke III) about as good as it gets and, in the right hands, convincing.

Das Lied von der Erde is often seen as Mahler’s farewell to life, which opens performances to the danger of over-sentimentalisation. If Mahler really meant the work to be void of hope, why did he add those final words to Bethge’s poem at the end of Der Abschied? Die liebe Erde allüberall / Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu! / Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! / Ewig... ewig ... (The dear earth everywhere blossoms in Spring and greens anew! Everywhere and eternally the distances shine blue. Eternally …). That returns us full circle to the awakening of Spring in his First Symphony, especially as that work was originally conceived with the Blumine movement.

De Leeuw, who died shortly after making and recording this adaptation, was terminally ill and seems to have regarded the project as his own farewell to life. Nevertheless, the performance doesn’t underplay the more hedonistic aspects of the words and music, hedonism which emerges from a composer reportedly anything but over-indulgent.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, but I can’t find it in myself to enthuse over all the all-too-apparent changes in texture. The conductor seems to have come to the conclusion that the music needed to be spiced up and jollied up, not only with unidiomatic instrumentation in some places but with emphatic tempo variations in others. Without seeing de Leeuw’s version of the score, I can’t be sure that nothing has been added, but individual instruments are clearly more prominent in the sparer textures – and the piano, harmonium and celesta are alien to Mahler’s original. I'm less happy than Simon Thompson was with another scaled-down recording which de Leeuw made with Het Collectief of music by Busoni, Berg, Webern and Zemlinsky - review.

All of which is a shame because there are many aspects of the performance to like. Neither soloist would be quite my ideal, but they are well matched. Yves Saelens may not be Fritz Wunderlich, but he does have the necessary Heldentenor technique and he makes a better job of his part throughout than Robert Dean Smith (Channel) or James King (Philips).

Everything stands or falls by the mezzo in the longest section, the final movement Der Abschied, the farewell. Iván Fischer gives the music space to expand here, with an overall time of 29:35, within seconds of Klemperer, whose late recordings are generally regarded as too slow – a snap judgement which is not always fair. De Leeuw is even more expansive at 31:34.

Lucile Richardot generally sings well and sustains this slow tempo well, but she’s no Janet Baker or Christa Ludwig, or, indeed, Iván Fischer’s mezzo, Gerhild Romberger, though she negotiates her way well though some of the curlicues that the changed instrumentation seems to throw around some of the music. Her final Ewig … part of the words which Mahler added to the poem, is beautifully hushed, but I would have preferred a clearer diminuendo down to the pp over the last syllable of the mezzo part (fig. 65) and from the instruments down to their closing ppp. Mahler instructs the performers to let the music die away completely – gänzlich ersterbend – but that implies something to die away from. I haven’t, of course, seen the score of the de Leeuw adaptation.

The instrumental performers, too, give of their best. Het Collectief is a small ensemble, essentially a scaled down orchestra, but de Leeuw throws a piano, celesta and harmonium into the mix. I liked much about the Linn recording of Erwin Stein’s chamber reduction of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (Linn CKD438 – DL News 2013/12), but felt that the use of a harmonium and two pianos was treading on dangerous ground. Add the celesta on the new Alpha, and the ground gives way in places, even though the important double bassoon is retained and the sense of stillness that pervades the music at times is easier to achieve with reduced instrumentation. Best all, the soloists are less in danger of being swamped by the smaller instrumental forces.

My press preview came in 16/44.1 sound, the equivalent of CD quality. With fewer instruments to encompass, the recording is very clear, though there’s plenty of punch where it’s needed, as in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde. The extra clarity is welcome, but it’s a two-edged sword when it makes some of the less happy of de Leeuw’s tinkerings so apparent. The clarity of the recording also sometimes shows Richardot’s diction to be less than ideal.

Overall, while I don’t entirely share the underlying notion that Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler’s conscious farewell to the world, I liked many aspects of this new recording very much; it retains much of the magical appeal of the original. I doubt that I shall be able to play it too often, however; if I didn’t know the work so well, I might not be so annoyed at some of the changes of texture. But I do know and love the original too much to make do with this partly successful reduction.

Brian Wilson

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